Book Review: Spectrum 18

Spectrum 18Edited by Cathy Fenner & Arnie FennerUnderwood Books, 2011Cathy Fenner and Arnie Fenner's "Spectrum" series marches triumphantly on with Spectrum 18, collecting some of the best fantasy artwork being done in the last year in a wide variety of media, all of it again broken down by comfortably flexible categories like "Editorial" and "Conceptual" and "Unpubished" (basically, anybody doing good work gets a shot at inclusion, which is just as it should be), and just as in previous years, so too in 2011: fans must trudge through Arnie Fenner's "Looking Forward, Looking Back" opening editorial on the state of science fiction, fantasy, religion, politics, the economy, and the nature of the Trinity. Sigh. The bloated fatuousness of these opening remarks is probably not entirely Fenner's fault; bully pulpits tend to make asses out of even the best editors (and both Fenners are very, very good editors). Nothing in "Looking Forward, Looking Back" comes close to the gruff idiocy on display every year in the similar overview Gardner Dozois writes for his indispensable The Year's Best Science Fiction series for St. Martin's ("SF TV continues its decline in quality - or so I'm told; I stopped watching TV when Dick Sargent replaced Dick York on Bewitched - got better things to do with my time, but still: the whole genre stinks. Harrumph"), but that's not from want of trying: Fenner opines on everything from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the earthquake in Haiti to the Broadway flop of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Night [sic, incredibly]. Luckily for the many fans of this series, when he's on topic, he's unbeatable: witness the two very fine tributes he pens this time around to Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson.And prose isn't the point of this production in any case - the star of any "Spectrum" volume is of course the artwork, pages and pages of gorgeous, evocative, disturbing, and often downright confusing pieces of fantasy artwork by dozens of artists, from the well-known and (relatively) well-paid to ambitious unknowns. Here we get the latest projects by old favorites like Greg Manchess or Scott Gustafson or Peter de Seve alongside new and stunning works by artists who're making their big-stage debuts in these pages. As usual with the "Spectrum" series, it's a heady mixture guaranteed to cost you many hours of delighted page-turning.Ordinarily, fantasy art being as unlimited as the human imagination can make it, the range of themes on display in any "Spectrum" volume will be as narrow and corseted as a Roman Catholic hymnal: there will be dragons, there will be scenes from "Lord of the Rings," "Elric," "Conan the Barbarian," and "Star Wars," and there will be more overripe female breasts than you'd find in a maternity ward. A great many of these works, after all, were commissioned for the consumption of slavering 13-year-old boys (of all ages). And Spectrum 18 obeys these demographics, although to a less obvious degree than I've seen in many years. True, there are dragons aplenty in these pages, dragons of every size, shape, and emotional disposition. But there's hardly an "Elric" or "Conan" work to be found, and although Donato Giancola's "Eowyn and the Lord of the Nazgul" is disappointingly derivative, it has neat bits, including that solitary slash of light across Eowyn's fallen horse:At the opposite end of the, em, spectrum is something like Sam Brown's oddly haunting "Space Station 05," which is absolutely no more than what its title implies: the forensically clean metal surfaces of a futuristic station that's very much a workplace. There are no frills about the place Brown has envisioned - except that the whole thing is a frill, something we're tempted to forget by the sheer amount of no-nonsense detail Brown works in:The final convincing twist of Brown's picture, for me, isn't the red trim-work but rather the muted floor-reflections of the ceiling lighting. And if you look through this volume for similar convincing twists, the often tiny decision that turns the painting from a work of commerce into a work of conviction, you'll find them on every page. In Omar Rayyan's hilarious "The Favorite," you might think that twist is the matching red flowers worn by the infanta and her monstrous fantasy-basset hound, but no - it's the rude little hand-grasp the girl needs to use in order to keep her rotund and objecting pet from spilling out of her arms:Likewise you might think that Jessica Shirley gives that extra note of genuineness to her whimsical "The Selkie" by having the head of her mythological girl-seal half-submerged just like the heads of the seals all around her (anybody who's ever watched a Cape Cod sand bar can tell you that those bobbing seal-heads often look disconcertingly human at first glance - no doubt a similar phenomenon in Scotland centuries ago gave rise to the mythology in the first place), but no: the key is that seal on the far right whose head is more revealed than that of the little girl - it enhances her mystery, especially since the more visible seal is directly connected to her by the line of the his back:For originality like that, we can forgive the volume for having a vampire on the cover.Of course, not all subtle hints are created equal. Christina Hess' "Queen Cat," for instance, will strike any cat - and any long-suffering cat-owner - as nothing less than completely obvious - perhaps even understated:Even after all these years, there's nothing quite like the "Spectrum" series, as remarkable and re-visitable a shelf of books as you'll have anywhere in your library. Cathy Fenner and Arnie Fenner are to be congratulated one more time on a job superbly done.